Although it’s the first of Chilean novelist Robert Ampuero’s books to be translated into English, “The Neruda Case” is actually the sixth and latest entry in a series that has helped bring the author international acclaim.
Framed by opening and closing chapters set in 2006, the story begins with globe-trotting detective Cayetano Brule stopping at a small cafe. Over coffee, he reflects on Chilean history, recalls his circuitous path to the country from his native Cuba and then sees on the back of the menu a photograph of Pablo Neruda. That image suddenly transports his memories to 1973 and to the Valparaiso home of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, the man who anointed and molded him as a detective.
Soon after meeting Cayetano at a party, Neruda picked him for a secret mission: find a Cuban doctor the poet had met in the 1940s, an oncologist investigating the powers of medicinal plants — perhaps, Cayetano believes, to address his own cancer. “But I’m not a detective, Don Pablo,” Cayetano pointed out — a concern that Neruda quickly dismissed. It was more important to him that Cayetano shared the same nationality as the doctor. As for becoming a detective, the poet suggested that he read Georges Simenon’s novels. “I’ll lend you these volumes,” he explained, “so you can learn something from Inspector Maigret.”
In the course of his investigation, Cayetano talks with journalists, poets, schoolteachers, government officials and even a literary scholar; battles bureaucracy and political suspicions; is shadowed by Chilean spies and interrogated by East German Stasi; and finds himself inquiring into his client’s character and motivations. In the process, Cayetano travels to Mexico, Cuba, East Germany and Bolivia and becomes increasingly embroiled in Chile’s own political turmoil: economic collapse, food shortages, labor strikes and bursts of violence, all part of the final days of Salvador Allende’s presidency and the brutal beginnings of Augusto Pinochet’s long dictatorship.
While Cayetano’s quest provides the novel’s narrative thrust, the book ultimately seems more a meditation on Neruda and Chile and even detective fiction itself. Through Cayetano’s eyes and through several chapters from the poet’s perspective, Ampuero offers a provocative depiction of Neruda, a man reevaluating his marriages and love affairs and feeling fresh remorse for having forsaken a hydrocephalic daughter to concentrate on his poetry.
If Cayetano’s case is driven by the poet’s quest for closure, the novel also reexamines the disjunctions between political philosophies and personal politics during that long tour from country to country. The closing chapter, returning readers to 21st-century Chile, provides an ironic and potentially redemptive coda to the book’s vivid depictions of troubled histories.
Closely related to all this, Cayetano’s musings on detective fiction quickly show how the investigative techniques of first-world novels don’t apply to the uncertainties of the Latin American landscape. Unlike in the rational and logical world of Maigret, “in Latin America — where improvisation, randomness, corruption, and venality were the order of the day — everything was possible.”
While “everything” might be possible, several incongruities may puzzle other readers. For example, Cayetano learns that the doctor’s wife came from Germany, that she was half-German and that she taught German, but nearly 40 pages later, when someone mentions that she’s German, our detective is “incredulous” at the news. Is Cayetano really so forgetful? Has the author been inattentive himself? Was something simply lost in translation?
Poor copy-editing or sloppy translating seem clearly at fault elsewhere, with more than a few stylistically awkward sentences and other missteps. On one page, the receipt for a package (a clue!) has been delivered, then 10 pages later has not been delivered — not updated information, just the clumsiness of translating that earlier sentence.
These troubles might tarnish Ampuero’s introduction to American readers, but they shouldn’t diminish the author’s overall achievements, especially given the scope of his ambitions.
Although “The Neruda Case” is a prequel for his international readers, here in the United States, it should be a prologue for more novels from this shrewd and serious-minded novelist.
Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.
THE NERUDA CASE
By Roberto Ampuero (translated from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis)
Riverhead. 340 pp. $26.95